A designer’s tour of the Large Hadron Collider


After a two-year maintenance shutdown, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was successfully reactivated over the weekend. I had the great fortune of visiting the CERN campus while repairs were being made last September, catching one of the last public tours of one of its detectors.

Straddling the border between Switzerland and France, CERN—the European Organization for Nuclear Research—was founded more than 60 years ago and is one of the largest science research centers in the world. The LHC is the most powerful particle accelerator ever built.

To give a sense of scale, imagine a circular tunnel with a circumference of roughly 17 miles (27km) buried about 160 to 500 feet underground. This massive hula-hoop structure houses head-on collisions of two opposing beams of protons or lead ions traveling at near-light speed (11,245 turns every second), recreating the conditions for the Big Bang.

On the ground are four large detectors, or observatories, including one named ATLAS—for A Toroidal LHC ApparatuS—which I entered.

Aerial view of CERN (Maximilien Brice / CERN)

Our guide introduced herself as a researcher of dark matter. Like a United Nations for science, more than 10,000 researchers from over a hundred countries work at CERN. They are collectively tackling questions like: What is the universe? What is it made of? How did we come about? How did life begin? How does it work?

CERN’s mode of research is curiosity-driven, as was my visit. As a writer on design, my eye was naturally drawn to the architectural signposts. The stunning Globe of Science and Innovation (simply, “The Globe”), serves as CERN’s museum and visitor center. The structure, designed by Swiss architect Hervé Dessimoz and wood engineer Thomas Büchi was the centerpiece structure of the Swiss national expo held in Neuchatel in 2001. Once a structure that housed an exhibit about sustainable architecture, it was appropriately recycled, and re-gifted to CERN by the Swiss government.

(Rain Rabbit / Creative Commons)

My eye was also drawn to a colorful mural on the façade of the ATLAS experiment by Josef Kristofoletti, a young painter from Texas who made this large-scale homage to the Higgs Boson.

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(Anne Quito)

Inspired by religious frescos in Italy, he applied a colorful skin to the rather standard grey cement box housing one of the large particle detectors.

We are scanned by a radiation detector before and after our visit. “Always, safety,” smiles our guide. And in case you forgot, there were signs everywhere.

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(Anne Quito)

The facility was one semiotic jungle of caution signs. There were so many posters, patches, bells, lights, reminders—sometimes right next to each, like street postings or maybe a pyromaniac’s mood board.

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(Anne Quito)

I spotted this curious one, just before we entered the detector:

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(Anne Quito)

For some reason, no one could decipher what it was. Was it a tired scientist resting area? With some sleuthing, I found a copy of the CERN Safety Signage Manual and learned that it was a warning for “danger of suffocation.” Great. I wondered, what good is a warning sign when no one understood what it was?

The mural outside was nice eye candy but nothing really quite compares to the visual smörgåsbord within the chamber. It was as if I had shrunk and managed to sneak into a colossal complex machine. Wires, tubes, gates, galleys, and 3,000 kilometers of cable, it was so massive that I could not really get a good angle with my iPhone from the narrow balcony we were standing on.

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(Anne Quito)

One more try:

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(Anne Quito)

Thankfully, there are better photos of ATLAS online.

This detailed LEGO model in the lobby helped grasp the complexity and the mass of the collider—a machine that weighs almost as much as the Eiffel Tower and generates 3,200 terabytes of data every year, which is equivalent to 600 years of music. Built by a physicist who works at the Niels Bohr Institute, the LEGO model has about 9,500 pieces and shows the collider at a scale of 1:50.

(ATLAS Experiment © 2014 CERN)

Like the scientists at CERN who challenge the Standard Model of physics to uncover new truths, I think design inquiry is most interesting when it pokes at the status quo and questions existing modes of representation. What is this designed universe? What is it made of? How did it come about? Does it still work?

I asked our guide, “Is there an architect for this place? Was there an overall designer with a vision and a blueprint?” We were in Switzerland after all, just an hour away from Le Corbusier’s birthplace.

She smiled, paused and said, “That’s an interesting question.” The young physicist pondered for a few more moments, then replied, “I don’t know. No one really asks about design. We talk about the architecture of big data, but of this structure… the architect, you can say, is the engineer.”

She explained that parts of the LHC were actually manufactured in different parts of the world and it was assembled like a ship in a bottle. “The design is about organization—everything needs to be properly and neatly labeled,” she offered.

We spent a whole day at CERN and on the way out, I glimpsed this perfect luminous Globe, even more magnificent lit from within. But at that moment, I saw it as a dazzling architectural decoy, distracting us from the overlooked questions about the dark matter of the designed world.

(Shotley Short / Creative Commons)


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